I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about the two Koreas, and he was adamant that North Korea would eventually transition to democracy and the two Koreas would unite. I asked some family members what they thought, and they believed that the Kim regime would eventually fall and the two Koreas would unite. So, it got me thinking…
North Korea and regime survival are complicated subjects, and any answer can’t really be definitive. However, the Kim regime falling is an entirely realistic scenario, and at present it probably wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that it would happen because of regime collapse. This is largely because Kim Jong-un with his pursuit of nuclear weapons to deter external intervention, appears to have no intention of implementing democratising reforms or agreeing to reunify anytime soon. Given this, it could be said that the most likely way for any reunification to happen is for the regime to completely collapse – many have attempted to predict when regime collapse may occyr in North Korea and have failed… I won’t even bother.
So, if the regime collapsed, would that allow South Korea to absorb the North and begin a period of transition to a unified Korea? Such a process would be extremely expensive for South Korea and would be extremely difficult to coordinate. However, this assumes neighbouring states like China would sit back and let this all happen.
Now China does support reunification on the Korean peninsula, just like it does in Taiwan, but only on its terms. That is, if North Korea were the leading party in reunifying the peninsula peacefully and established a unified Korea which is pro-Chinese. However, given the enormous gap in population and economic power and the close US-ROK alliance, the process of reunification between the two Koreas is highly unlikely to be dictated by North Korea. Thus, a peaceful reunification would more likely result in a pro-US unified Korea, which would be unacceptable outcome to China who fear encirclement by the US.
With that in mind, China’s best option is to try and maintain the status quo. This means that in the event of regime collapse, their only real option is to intervene and prop up the regime. This would probably help to minimise the refugee flow into China from North Korea if the regime did collapse, and would secure the buffer China feels it needs to have to Pro-US states in East Asia. In the event of doing so China would deny Koreans a golden opportunity for reunification to secure their strategic interests.
Of course, this analysis assumes that China would not intervene earlier to prevent regime collapse which I think would probably be more likely than China letting the regime to collapse.
These are just my rough ideas, please feel free to comment, challenge, correct me if you disagree.